On a beautiful evening in May, a tall, middle-aged gentleman stood outside an unmarked door in the West Village. He wore an oversized black coat, a gold signet ring on his left hand, and a clear plastic earpiece wired down his back. His voice was businesslike but personable when I asked him about his job.
“It’s a job. Just like any other job. As long as you know your job. But you gotta be a people person, gotta know people.”
Does he do this job full time? He laughs.
“Sometimes. Full time sometimes. I do this a lot.”
A black Expedition pulled up to the curb, and the man stepped into the street to open the door. A blonde emerged, all black leggings and chunky platform boots adorned with zippers. He firmly welcomed her and directed her to the coat check and registration rooms, both behind other unmarked doors. She thanked him and strutted away.
The scene repeated itself for the next few hours. The gentleman, along with a half dozen other bouncers, stood guard outside the brick building, hands clasped behind their backs. They looked like they could stop trouble in its tracks, but mostly they opened the doors of yellow cabs for single women tottering in their heels. Everyone was there, from pretty young things in the trendiest platform stilettos, to perfectly coiffed bottle-blonde housewives in designer dresses, to gracefully aging matrons and their mustachioed husbands of how many years. Couples smiled nervously as they approached from up and down the street, the young women gripping their dates’ arms delicately but assertively. Single men in sharp suits were hard-pressed to unglue their eyes from their Blackberry screens. Sharp jaws, cheekbones and designer labels abounded: YSL, Dior.
Against this steady stream of well-heeled guests stood another group. They slouched in tight circles, dressed in white coats and checkered pants, pinching cigarettes between two fingers and shifting their weight from one foot to the other. The men’s hands were scarred; the lone woman wore a bandana and no makeup. They laughed hurriedly, privately, with each other and didn’t linger long; there was work to do inside.
This unusual crowd had gathered for the second annual benefit for Wellness in the Schools, the nonprofit organization of Chef Bill Telepan that supports healthy public school lunches, and The Greenhouse Project, dedicated to integrating environmental science education in New York City’s public schools. The event featured twenty or so chefs from some of the city’s best restaurants (Commerce, Gramercy Tavern, dell’anima, Babbo, Hearth, Candle 79), each preparing one or two small dishes for guests to sample; a sort of free-form tapas meal.
The benefit was held in the Stephan Weiss Studio, an open gallery space, warehouse tall and twinkling. Upstairs, a brightly-lit sunroom was dominated by an intimidating table strewn with baskets of crackers and wedges of crumbly cheeses. Glass doors opened onto an outdoor patio studded with wide wooden benches and draping trees. Multiple full bars were stockpiled with fleets of glinting wine glasses and highball tumblers, which kept the customers satisfied and the bussers busy.
For an event meant to emphasize the importance of good food, the benefit did not disappoint. Dishes ranged from the expected (delightfully simply hamachi ceviche and lox bagels) to the inventive (charred avocado with a delicate peanut butter crust). Playful textures were mastered by Alex Guarnaschelli from Butter (the crisp of her flatbread pizza’s crust contrasted with the smoothness of the toppings) and Telepan himself, whose vibrant carrot and peekytoe crab soup highlighted salty shavings of both ingredients. Even SchoolFood, the organization responsible for all breakfasts and lunches in NYC’s public schools, had a table, serving up baked triangular chips and various bean salads with a south-of-the-border twist. The most memorable dish of the evening, the miniature lamb meatball sliders, came as a golden brioche bun hugging a bright red meatball, spread with cool cheese and a cucumber sliver perched on top.
Dinner was excellent, but dessert was sinful. El Diavolo, a surprisingly thick chocolate mousse sprinkled with nibs of bitter cocoa, shocked with its aftertaste of hot pepper. Udon spoons from Levain Bakery cradled monster cookies wedges, chock full of nuts and chocolate chunks; shot glasses of milk were on hand as chasers. For non-chocolate-lovers, the best dessert by far was a pop-in-your-mouth cracker bejeweled with berries and mint, with a zing reminiscent of Now And Laters; a deconstructed summery fruit salad, if you will.
The steep price of admission wasn’t the only fundraiser of the evening. A silent auction featured, among many items, a guitar autographed by Sting. A competitive live auction (but all in good fun!) held even more prizes, including a backstage package and special tickets to the New York City Ballet, a dinner party at the Fatty Crab for thirty of your closest friends, a weekend in the Hamptons with Alec Baldwin, a helicopter ride with Cameron Diaz. All fetched admirable prices.
To cap off the evening, Eric Lewis, an intense young musician with silver metal gauntlets strapped to his wrists, mesmerized the crowd with his ferocious musical stylings. I cannot recommend this man enough. He lunged at his piano, banging out Mr. Brightside, The Diary of Jane and Smells Like Teen Spirit in rich, roaring tones of rockjazz, yet still satisfied the old-timers with Sweet Home Alabama. His driving sounds carried the well-to-do, well-fed guests and their exhausted servers out of the studio space, into the cool May air and the waiting night.